A Jordanian who claims to have briefly served on Osama bin Laden's personal security detail told a German court today that the al Qaeda chief declared to followers at a training camp in Afghanistan six months before the Sept. 11 attacks last year that there would be "thousands of deaths" in the United States.
"All the people [in the camp] knew that bin Laden said that there would be something done against America, but what he had in mind we did not know," said Shadi Abdallah, 25, a refugee of Palestinian origin who spent nearly 18 months in Afghanistan, apparently brushing shoulders with leading al Qaeda figures. It was clear to those in the camps, he said, that "America was going to be hit."
Abdallah said he was first urged to pursue holy war by one of bin Laden's in-laws while he was on pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Abdallah, who appeared in the courtroom partially disguised, is a key witness in the trial of Mounir Motassadeq, 28, a Moroccan accused of being a member of the Hamburg cell that spearheaded the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and at the Pentagon. He is charged with more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder.
Abdallah, who was arrested on separate terrorist charges this April in Germany, provided fresh detail on the organizational role of Ramzi Binalshibh, another member of the Hamburg group. Binalshibh was captured in Pakistan on the first anniversary of the attacks and is now in secret U.S. custody.
"He had a special position in the camp," Abdallah said about Binalshibh, a Yemeni who surfaces at all key junctures in the evolution of the hijacking plot, according to investigators. "He was very close to bin Laden and spoke very often with him and gave lessons in the mosque. He was part of the inner circle."
Speaking in Arabic, Abdallah testified that Binalshibh traveled in and out of Afghanistan frequently, as late as the spring of 2001. He said Binalshibh recounted to him that he had arrived that time through Iran on a false passport.
Some intelligence officials question Abdallah's credibility, particularly his claim that shortly after arriving in Afghanistan, he worked for two weeks as a bodyguard for bin Laden despite having little or no military training. "We are very skeptical of some of [Abdallah's] claims," said an Arab intelligence official who is familiar with the witness's background. Other sources said some officials in German law enforcement share that view.
Abdallah, a large man, said that because of his physical presence, he was chosen as a bodyguard by Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian and bin Laden's security chief, who remains at large.
Officials said that although Abdallah may inflate aspects of his experience, they do not doubt that he spent extended periods in Afghanistan when key hijackers and planners were also at al Qaeda camps.
Abdallah testified today that in December 1999 he went to Mecca on a trip sponsored by a missionary sect of Muslims called the Tabligh. While in Mecca, he was urged to go to Afghanistan by a Saudi who was married to one of bin Laden's daughters. The man supplied him with numbers in Karachi, Pakistan, to facilitate the trip.
Saudi officials have privately acknowledged in interviews that al Qaeda had recruiters in Mecca and that some of the 15 Saudi hijackers who took part in the Sept. 11 attacks were recruited in Islam's holiest place.
Traveling on refugee papers issued by Germany, Abdallah said, he arrived at an al Qaeda guesthouse in the Afghan city of Kandahar in early 2000. He was interviewed there by Muhammad Atef, an Egyptian whom he referred to by his alias, Abu-Hafs al-Masri. Atef, an al Qaeda military chief, was killed by a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in November 2001.
Abdallah testified that bin Laden spoke at a mosque at a training camp. "His words were very strong -- we must strike at America and destroy it," Abdallah said. "He said there would be thousands of dead."
Abdallah said he left Afghanistan in May 2001 and returned to Germany in August after spending a few months in Pakistan. Abdallah said his experience in Afghanistan elevated his status within the radical community upon his return to Germany. "They look at you like an angel who is going to paradise," he said. "They have a lot of respect for you."
Special correspondent Souad Mekhennet in Hamburg contributed to this report.